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August 3, 2016

How ‘Beat Bugs’ Sells the Beatles to a New Generation


Scott Porch / Rolling Stone

Jasper, a grasshopper with a cane and a top hat, is caught in a plastic box that he sees as an opportunity. “Hop on board this luxurious viewing vehicle,” he tells five little bugs staring back at him from the outside, “for the spectacular spectacle of the Magical Mystery Tour!” These tiny creatures — the stars of Beat Bugs, the new animated children’s series on Netflix — are intrigued. And off they go.

Grandparents will recognize Jasper as a huckster right of of The Music Man. Parents will recognize Eddie Vedder’s voice when Jasper sings “Magical Mystery Tour.” And most importantly, children will travel along with Jasper and his friends on their adventure, experiencing the music of the Beatles in a way their parents and grandparents never imagined.

“It was a visionary idea,” said Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix, “about how to take the music and contextualize it for show that’s geared for two- to five-year-olds — learning about community and about themselves in a way that you wouldn’t immediately associate with a Beatles song — that Josh Wakely very cleverly brought together.”

Wakely was a little-known writer/producer in Australia three years ago when he landed the rights to adapt a catalog of Beatles tracks like “Penny Lane,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Magical Mystery Tour” into an animated series. Each 11-minute segment of Beat Bugs follows a story that’s loosely based on the lyrics of a single Fab Four song. “It was sort of alchemy,” he says when asked if the music or the animated-series concept came first. “I remember hearing ‘All You Need Is Love’ in the car and realizing that it was a perfect song melodically. It had a message of love that resonated with me as a young parent that it’s a message you can teach children.”

Wakely spent the next three years trying to secure the music, starting with Damien Trotter from the Australian arm of Sony/ATV, the music publishing company that controls the band’s catalog. “I asked him how you go about getting the Beatles rights,” he says, “and [Trotter] said, ‘Well, you don’t. They just don’t grant them.’ They’re very protective of those rights.”

It helped, however, that Wakely wasn’t interested in making a series about the Beatles themselves. One of the Beat Bugs is a beetle — with a lower-case “b” — but his name isn’t Paul, John, George or Ringo. It’s Jay. “Beat Bugs was inspired by the Beatles’ imagination and their melodies,” Wakely said. “The idea was always to create a whole new world with those works.” That concept sold Sony/ATV on the project.

Once Wakely secured the rights to use the music, he sold the project to Netflix as a global distribution partner. Once that partnership was in place, his first call was to Kelly Curtis, who manages Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder. “He said, ‘I need to talk to Eddie, but this is a brilliant idea.’ Then Eddie said yes, and that was a huge break right out of the gate.” The Shins (“The Word”) came on soon after, as did Sia (“Blackbird”), Pink (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) and James Corden (“I’m a Loser”). “I’ve seen music really bring generations together and what Josh has done is a great example of that,” Vedder said in an email to Rolling Stone. (Rod Stewart, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Cornell and Of Mice and Men are already on board for Season Two.)

The first 26 segments of Beat Bugs premiere on Netflix starting today; on Friday, the 26 featured songs plus the series theme song (“All You Need Is Love”) and several music videos will roll onto Apple Music. Apple will have the songs exclusively until November 4th, when they become available to other streaming services and in a “best of” collection on CD. Netflix will then premiere the second season — with 26 new segments — worldwide on November 18th. Kids watching Beat Bugs will be a third generation of Beatles listeners after the boomers who grew up listening to the band in the Sixties and Seventies, and the Generation X-ers who remember hearing the songs on TV commercials, box sets, remastered editions, and in films like 2007’s Across the Universe.

“When that movie came out, my daughter was 14 years old,” Netflix’s Ted Sarandos says. “She and her friends saw it in the theater five times. When I took her to see it for a sixth time and the movie was about to start, she leaned over and said, ‘The Beatles do all of the music in the movie. They are gonna be so famous.’ For her, those were brand new songs.”

Wakely has two other music/TV projects in development: a second Netflix children’s series that he’s developing with Smokey Robinson that will feature Motown hits; and a drama series he’s developing with Lionsgate TV for Amazon that will draw on characters from Bob Dylan songs. Neither of those shows has a title or a release date yet. For now, he’s happy just to see that his three-year-old son already knows many of the songs from seeing him edit the Bugs episodes.

“He’ll go around the house singing ‘I am the walrus, ku-ku-kachu,'” Wakely says. “I have memories of being young and wondering what it would be like to be in a yellow submarine, who Eleanor Rigby was or what it would be like for a song to go on forever and ever. That imagination was just preparing me to be an adult.”